This Issue
 
Three innovators answer the call for sustainable building materials with game-changing bio-based products.
WRITTEN BY Kiley Jacques
Title: DuraBind is safe to handle and made from sustainable ingredients­—engineered biopolymers replace nonrenewable chemicals used to manufacture many products such as insulation and wood composites. Above: Mycelium is the vegetative part of a fungus. It is a network of cells living within and throughout almost all landmasses on Earth.

Title: DuraBind is safe to handle and made from sustainable ingredients­—engineered biopolymers replace nonrenewable chemicals used to manufacture many products such as insulation and wood composites. Above: Mycelium is the vegetative part of a fungus. It is a network of cells living within and throughout almost all landmasses on Earth.

During a Greenbuild 2016 session titled “Positive Disruptors,” imaginations were set alight by a discussion of green building “super materials.” By adapting biological processes, three of today’s leading innovators have collectively managed to harness fungi and employ rhizomes to make healthy and renewable products for a resilient built environment.

 

Eben Bayer, co-founder and CEO of New York–based Ecovative, explains how his discovery of mycelium’s strength and fire resistance led to the engineering of MycoBoard™, a wood alternative surpassing conventional substrates, and MycoFoam™, a fungi-based material used in protective packaging. Bayer’s technology uses substrate from wood chips and plant stalks, moistened with water and inoculated with mycelial cells (the vegetative part of fungi). Those cells grow through and around the substrate, all the while deriving nutrition from it. In time, the mycelia form a complex molecular network, which acts as a glue, essentially holding everything together.

 

The choice of substrate, the strain of mycelium, and the growing method determine the product’s properties, which may be cushioning and absorbing, leatherlike, or rigid. Ecovative’s lower-density products, which behave much like styrofoam, have achieved a third party–verified Class A fire rating.

 

The first application of MycoFoam™—molded packaging—offered an alternative to plastics. Today, it is mass produced and sold directly to end users such as Dell, as well as via the Ecovative website, for use as a structural core in everything from furniture to doors to acoustical panels. Available, too, is a range of finished products for office interiors, such as decorative acoustical tiles, which can be customized for mounting to walls and ceilings.

 

Operations have expanded to include a second factory, where they are scaling up production of three-by-six-ft and four-by-eight-ft sheets of MycoBoard™. “In the past, we only made our products available in the molded shape form,” notes Bayer. “So, I am really excited to see what architects and building designers [do with] the material, now that it is commercially available.”

 

Another Ecovative innovation, the Grow It Yourself (GIY) kit, is Bayer’s answer to the many requests from people for products he couldn’t provide. “We created the GIY kits so artists and designers and even students could get raw material from us—dehydrated substrate [that acts] like a sea monkey. They add water and can make anything.” Lighting designer Danielle Trofe has devised a lampshade from the material; her aptly named MushLume installation features in the eco-minded 1-Hotel Brooklyn Bridge. Ecovative is set to partner with her to offer a version of her lampshade as one of their GIY kits.

Left: Eben Bayer, co-founder and CEO of New York–based Ecovative. Right: This versatile, nontoxic engineered wood, which offers acoustic and fire-resistant properties, can be molded into custom shapes or pressed into boards, making it an ideal solution for the architectural and design community.

Left: Eben Bayer, co-founder and CEO of New York–based Ecovative. Right: This versatile, nontoxic engineered wood, which offers acoustic and fire-resistant properties, can be molded into custom shapes or pressed into boards, making it an ideal solution for the architectural and design community.

All Ecovative products are made from locally sourced raw materials, have low embodied energy, and are beneficial to human health in that they contain no Living Building Challenge red-listed chemicals, emit no VOCs, have a high R-value, and are Cradle to Cradle Gold certified. “I think it is extremely responsive to Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design [LEED] and WELL Building Standard [WELL] criteria,” says Bayer, noting that acoustical tiles can improve any building’s sustainability profile. Their products are also responsive to climate change by mitigating CO2 during production.

 

In terms of future innovations, Bayer anticipates more applications in the durable goods arena—furniture and home/office interiors. Of bio-based products in general, he says: “I see them playing a bigger and bigger role in green building . . . I see biomaterials starting to change how we build.” He points to BioMASON, a company in North Carolina using bacteria to bind sand together to make everything from countertops to bricks. “[Those bricks offer] a beautiful biological solution to another greenhouse gas producer—[concrete]. We are going to need many more innovations like that to start to really influence building over the next 10 to 20 years. I think we are on the cusp of a biological revolution in building.”

 

What will it take to get there? Time.

Scaling up the manufacturing process took Bayer seven years; there was also the time it took to test and validate his materials, and then gain a market presence. “All of that is the harder thing to achieve in some cases than getting the technology right,” he says. “New technologies take a while to catch up to the incumbents, and if you are on the cutting edge of building, sometimes you aren’t on the edge of being safe and healthy in terms of, say, energy performance.”

 

Other constraints include building codes, which can hamper more “futuristic concepts.” Bayer gives the example of a building “grown” from thin-wooded pine shelves and mycelia. “The entire building cavity was filled with our living substrate—like a massive GIY kit.” The substrate grows into the pine and into the insulation and glues the whole building together, like spray foam. Once the pine completely dries out, a super-strong, lightweight, insulated, fire-resistant, VOC-free structure remains. “It’s really cool but not totally predictable because we don’t have total control over biology yet. And it doesn’t meet code for that sort of construction methodology.” Bayer feels some allowances should be made for experimental building that brings biology into the fold—to create actual living buildings.

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GIY Mushroom® Material is a mixture of mycelium and corn stalks/husks that can grow into a form with water and flour.

MycoBoard is a premium, customizable, certified sustainable engineered wood. It is bound together using mycelium—“nature’s glue”—which is formaldehyde free, safe, and healthy.

MycoBoard is a premium, customizable, certified sustainable engineered wood. It is bound together using mycelium—“nature’s glue”—which is formaldehyde free, safe, and healthy.

San Francisco–based Biome is another frontrunner in the biomaterials sphere. Their high-tech green wall system monitors and improves indoor air quality using microbiomes that exist on plant roots and ingest air-polluting toxins.

 

Named Taiga T35 (T35), their system is an “immersive piece of landscaping technology,” comprising 35 plants and five air purification chambers. It integrates hardware, software, and biology, so there is an array of materials including metals, plastics, coatings, and biologics that all require careful sourcing. “We are not just using off-the-shelf components,” says founder Collin Cavote, noting that their products are toxin free. “The materiality is super important to what we are doing.”

 

Using NASA-vetted technology, all Biome products are optimized to remediate air pollution. Sand pulls air molecules from the room, into the system, and through the root mass of (typically tropical) plants to facilitate and enhance bioremediation of things like formaldehyde and benzene—typical indoor air contaminants. “We rely on those plants to foster the right microorganisms,” explains Cavote, adding that a plant grown in their system is nearly 200 times more effective at purifying air than plants grown in soil; the activated carbon soilless medium in which they are grown acts like an absorbent agent—much like a Brita filter—and the root system’s microbes digest the pollution. “It becomes a cyclical process, whereby the activated carbon gets renewed and the plants get nutrition.”

 

The impetus for his invention? Cavote explains how, in 2006, he went off-grid for a year. “I was really living in nature,” he recalls. “When I came back to city life and school, I realized how drab the built environment is—a sterile concrete jungle—I really felt that shock.” Air pollution, in general, troubled him. “It’s one of the biggest global health concerns,” he says. “Climate change is an air-quality issue.”

 

Simultaneously, he was studying the ways in which plants clean air. Research at the time proved that it is the roots, not the leaves, that perform that function. His work included an examination of the largest green wall in North America and its cleaning rates. “I decided I wanted to productize it to make the technology of a $200,000 green wall that requires $20,000 per month of maintenance to be accessible to a family with a new child or a hotel,” explains Cavote. And Biome was born.

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T35 automatically cares for 35 plants within its five air purification chambers.

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To become a products company, Cavote worked with designers and engineers and brought it to market about a year ago. Given the fast pace of urban living, Cavote felt it vital to develop an “automated nature product”—one that would require little maintenance—for it to be viable. “We are basically trying to create a tool for the design community to specify nature.”

 

The Biome green wall is in high demand in Northern California’s Bay Area, particularly in the tech sector, which is invested in making healthy work environments. Cavote cites an Environmental Health Perspectives study that demonstrates indoor air quality is directly related to productivity, crisis response, and information usage. He sees his product as a tool that can be used to reach productivity goals. Currently, he is working with a few banks on their customer-facing side as well as in their internal workings to provide employees healthier workspaces. The next move is into the residential sector. Connor Developers is on board to start using them in some of its high-rise condominiums nationally.

 

Cavote sees his green wall at work “anywhere nature is desirable.” The possibilities seem endless. “We are increasingly excited about schools and hospitals—places where children and the elderly and sick are really in need of the benefits nature can provide,” he says, adding that studies show healing is speeded by access to nature. “We want to be able to provide the research to make our customers confident that this is an effective choice.”

As a declared certified product, Taiga 35 targets LEED and WELL transparency and biophilia criteria. The suite of sensors that measure real-time CO2, light, temperature, and humidity make it an active tracking mechanism for WELL.

 

“We are increasingly looking at how to help clients achieve that certification,” notes Cavote. Rather than being viewed strictly as an accessory to be added toward the end of a project, they are getting involved during the earlier stages, thereby providing more opportunities to meet building certification requirements.

 

Like Bayer, Cavote feels bright about the future of bio-based building materials. “I think this is a new age. . . we are transitioning from less bad to actually healthy with materials that will make people live longer, not just as long as they should have lived in the first place.”

 

Research to understand how humans can generate clean air in space led to an amazing discovery: micro-biomes that exist on plant roots that eat air pollution.

Research to understand how humans can generate clean air in space led to an amazing discovery: micro-biomes that exist on plant roots that eat air pollution.

On yet another front, EcoSynthetix’s spectrum of products have replaced petroleum-based SB latex with a bio-based material in paper coating applications. Their patented EcoSphere biolatex® binders are used on a commercial scale around the globe. “Our system has very good form fit, and we are able to displace up to 25 percent of the petrochemicals with our biopolymer,” says Doug Ireland, director of building products.

 

Fifteen years after their initial product entered the marketplace, the idea came about that they could tailor their biopolymer for different applications. Enter: DuraBind, a glue/binding agent used in building materials like insulation, composites from natural fibers like hemp and jute, and wood composites including particle board, medium-density fiber (MDF) board, and oriented stand board (OSB). According to Ireland, engineered biopolymers enable manufacturers of such products to decrease the amount of highly regulated chemicals, such as formaldehyde, in their formulation.

 

He describes the process by which DuraBind is made as one that applies technology to “nature’s biopolymer” from feedstocks such as corn, tapioca, and potato to engineer—via a reactive extrusion process—a new biopolymer. “We use what nature gives us and then take away some of the negative characteristics of natural biopolymers, such as season-to-season variation, to make a very consistent product.”

 

Other benefits of EcoSynthetix’s biopolymer products include improved building safety, and reduction in the complexity of processes associated with working with highly regulated chemicals. Their carbon footprint, too, is minimal compared to those of competitors. Conventional binders like the urea-formaldehyde (UF) resin binder have a carbon footprint of 2.86 CO2e, and N-DMBI, which is a synthetic binder system, measures about 4.0. DuraBind measures 1.03.

 

“From a sustainability standpoint, we are replacing petrochemical components,” says Ireland, adding that particle board is, on average, 90 percent either FSC-certified or recycled wood and 10 percent petrochemicals. “What we bring is a product that is 98 percent sustainable wood and 1.5 percent petroleum based. There’s a significant improvement in terms of the sustainability of the board.”

 

DuraBind is designed to comply with the LEED credit for composite wood materials. In terms of WELL, Ireland says: “It’s a little early for us to know exactly how we fit there, but it is a natural product so there are no VOCs and no off-gassing, which makes it healthier for building occupants.” Given DuraBind takes the place of formaldehyde-based technology, the air quality in buildings and homes is immediately improved.

Super Materials to Watch For

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BioMASON

uses proprietary technology to grow Biocement™ from microorganisms. The technique forms biologically controlled structural cement, eliminating the need for the fuel-fired curing/hardening process. The product can be incorporated into existing facilities or manufactured on site. Benefits include energy cost savings, reduction in carbon emissions, and alignment with green building credits.

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Blue Planet

makes carbon-sequestering concrete. Their patented technology uses waste CO2 as a raw material to produce carbon-negative building materials. The Blue Planet mineralization process by which concrete is formed is based on the naturally occurring process that turns the Earth’s lithosphere—containing approximately 70,000,000 billion tons of CO2—into carbonate rocks. Green attributes include reduced greenhouse gas emissions, low embodied energy, high solar reflectance, energy cost savings, and alignment with green building credits.

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PILI Biotech

biofabricates colored dyes—a clean alternative to pigments containing heavy metals. This young startup uses microorganisms to replace nonrenewable, toxic petrochemical- and nonscalable vegetal-based dyes for use in paints and textiles. This “living palette” has the potential to become a global supplier of renewably sourced dyes.

Much of Ireland’s time is devoted to explaining to potential clients the benefits of DuraBind. Facing a conventional industry accustomed to formaldehyde-based products and systems is a challenge. “You have to be very prudent and conservative in your program,” he says. “You have to ensure that the quality and performance is going to meet or exceed expectations over the long term.”

 

To make bio-based products attractive to more conventionally inclined customers, they position their product as having three pillars of strength: profit, performance, and sustainability. For clients to change their buying habits, the economics must be viable, the performance level must meet or exceed standards that the previous system/incumbent chemistry had delivered, and the green attributes must be marketable. “If you can deliver the first two, and convince them of the marketability of sustainability, then you are providing a means by which they can earn a competitive edge,” explains Ireland. “We are trying to take down hurdles to make it easier for companies to make the transition.”

 

Currently, Ecosynthetix supplies many of the top 15 composite panel companies in Europe, North America, and Asia. Ireland sees future possibilities: “I think there are more applications we could look at, like plywood and veneering. The constraint isn’t the technology; it’s a matter of transforming industries.”